It's only fitting that the number 33, one of only five retired numbers in Arizona State football history, will be represented when Sun Devils running back Marion Grice crosses the goal line for the program's single-season touchdown record.
The No. 33 patch that adorns every Arizona State football jersey this season commemorates Hall of Famer Wilford "Whizzer" White, the Sun Devils legend who died in August and holder of that record Grice is chasing.
"It's really a great feeling, being able to check off a goal and say, 'I own a great record at Arizona State,'" Grice said.
Should the senior match his two touchdown per game average Saturday at UCLA, he'll tie White's 22 scores and have the opportunity to break the record at home against rival Arizona. Last year, Grice reached the end zone three times against the Wildcats.
Marquee games, such as the rivalry bout, are when Grice has been at his best. He scored eight of his 20 touchdowns, four apiece, in wins over currently Top 25-ranked Wisconsin and USC. Grice will be called upon again to shine on a big stage once more Saturday, when the Sun Devils travel to the Rose Bowl with an opportunity to sew up the Pac-12 South championship.
A divisional title and berth in the conference championship game are the more pressing goals for Grice and his Sun Devils teammates this week, as well as avenging a 45-43, heartbreaking loss to the Bruins a season ago.
The near-miss gives Arizona State added motivation but more importantly, a blueprint for this year's contest.
"We have to take last year and learn from it," Grice said. "Try to put our game out there."
Their game is predicated heavily on Grice, both as a traditional rusher and a pass-catcher in space. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's version of the spread flourishes with playmakers generating yards both on the perimeter and up the middle. Grice does both, which is why he's on the edge of history.
Records, especially offensive records, fall in college football with regularity thanks to teams playing more games and the wide-open styles of offense that are so prevalent around the game. But White's 22 total touchdowns in 1950 has endured countless rule changes, spread offenses and six decades to remain Arizona State's benchmark.
Grice is humble in his pursuit of history—"I give a lot of thanks to my offensive line," he said—though he recognizes the record's gravity.
"It's interesting, because I was just talking to [Arizona State assistant sports information director] Thomas [Lenneberg] about how long the record's stood," he said.
Reaching such a mark ensures Grice's name will have a prominent place in Arizona State lore for years to come, but one need not wait for years to weigh the Houston native's importance to the Sun Devils.
"Marion Grice has been unbelievably special to our program," head coach Todd Graham said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
With a 12 point per game average, Grice would be the second-highest scorer on the Arizona State basketball team. And with the kind of versatility he's displayed, who knows—maybe basketball coach Herb Sendek could find a way to use him.
Of course, a dual-sport career isn't happening, but a dual-threat style out of the backfield fuels Grice's stat sheet stuffing on the football field.
"He's very versatile. He's a good running back who also has great ability in the pass game," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. "That makes him an exceptional threat."
Grice has nearly 1,600 rushing and 800 receiving yards in his two seasons at Arizona State. He said he's being used as much more of a running threat this season than last, which his 173 carries for 901 yards and 14 touchdowns reflect. But his role as a primary target for quarterback Taylor Kelly hasn't diminished. On the contrary, he's caught 43 passes, third most on the team and two more than in 2012.
"I wasn't expecting this kind of season. I'm just willing to do anything I could to help out," he said.
Such has been the defining trait of Grice's tenure at Arizona State, where he arrived from Blinn (Texas) College as one of the nation's most sought-after junior college prospects in the 2012 recruiting class. Yet despite his 4-star status per Rivals.com, Grice had to find his niche within the offense, particularly in a crowded backfield.
Cameron Marshall was returning from his own historic season, when he tied the program's single-season rushing touchdown mark with 18 in 2011. The Sun Devils also had then-freshman D.J. Foster competing for carries. Standing out for Grice meant taking on double-duty as both a ball-carrier and receiver.
"I wanted to show my teammates and coaches I could be balanced," he said.
Those who have seen Grice in his two seasons at Arizona State can attest that he's succeeded in that pursuit. And six decades from now, future Sun Devils just might know the number one for this historic run, much as they recognize number 33 today.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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